Bamboo Origin of Vertical Chinese Writing

Bamboo Origin of Vertical Chinese Writing

In China, in parks, mountains and villages, you can find Chinese characters or other symbols carved on living bamboos. People just act naturally, on the smooth surface, picking up a stone with sharp tips. This simple, natural way of writing could have been practiced thousands of years ago and have to do with the origin of Chinese writing.

Vertical carvings on living bamboos predated bamboo slips

Writing horizontally is natural for eyes to read. Although not with a natural direction, Chinese writing had been fixed in vertical columns until last century. There should be a cause. Tsien [1] has attributed verticality of Chinese writing to bamboo strip and brush. However, bamboo strips can also be arranged in horizontal direction to write on. It seems no horizontal writings on bamboo strips of ancient times have ever been discovered. Regarding the origin of verticality of Chinese writing on bamboo slips, there could be three scenarios. In the first case, the scribes chose vertical direction without trying horizontal. In the second case, both vertical and horizontal writings were practiced but later horizontality was abandoned. In the third case, vertical direction was already in place before bamboo strips were used. The first case is unlikely, since scribes can know which direction is more advantageous after trying each one. The second case means vertical arrangement is advantageous over horizontal arrangement in competition. We don’t support this case since we consider horizontal writing is suitable for reading thus should not fail in competition. Let’s talk about the third case.

To find writings before bamboo strips, we focus on two things: writing material and writing instrument. Again, we find bamboo. But this time it is living bamboo. No doubt, as indigenous plant in China, bamboo is abundant, having smooth surface and thin skin. It is easy and convenient to carve on bamboos. The carvings are clear for reading and remain so during bamboo’s lifetime. These conditions are satisfied: writable, readable and relatively preservable. Stones with sharp tip can be the tool. In prehistoric society, perhaps nothing was more suitable for developing writing than living bamboo and stone. It is only natural to write in vertical columns on the round and narrow surface of upright-growing stems.

Living bamboos can be the earliest candidate for writing. One question is: did people start writing on them earlier than on bamboo slips that were cut from them? It is very possible that our ancestors began using stone tools to carve them at the beginning, long before the advents of ink and brush. That is the simplest way of writing in its broad sense. In early times, people might plant bamboos in front of their homes for a variety of usages. People also carved symbols on them for drawing and recording purposes. Later, people found the writings can be migrated to bamboo slips. Carvings on living bamboos in that time might be abundant. It is hard to know the amount of the texts and their complexity. They should be already sequenced vertically. Before bamboo slips, there should have been at least ‘sentences’ written on living bamboos. Later writings on bamboo slip and book inherited the verticality.

Living bamboos and bamboo slips carried the lost origin of Chinese writing

However, symbols in living bamboo cannot last to our generation. Many materials cannot be preserved for such long time. Usually, research on history of writing is based on archeological findings and written records. It seems pre-bamboo slip ancient carvings on living bamboo have never been mentioned. Writing may have already migrated to bamboo slip before the earliest records. It is usually difficult to create works written (engraved etc.) with long-lasting material and method. But it is okay for the majority of writings to last for only years/decades instead of hundreds of years or millennia. For most people, preservation for over a hundred years was not desirable in most cases. Even today, with advanced preservation technique, most published works would not be found a millennium later, not to mention personal writings.

Oracle bone script is the undisputed earliest China’s true writing system dating to Shang dynasty. The oracle bones were mainly for divination of the royal house. Given their special purpose, relative scarcity of bones and shells, and relative difficulty of making the scripts, they should not be the most widely used writing material in that time. The script was already fully developed, with no apparent predecessor. True writing in China could have existed much earlier. Records from other surviving media indicate that bamboo slips existed as early as in oracle bone script period. There are Neolithic signs dating a few millennia earlier. In these millennia, there possibly were many writings on bamboo slips or living bamboos, on which Chinese writing developed.


Carvings on living bamboos with stone tool might have originated Chinese writing. They fixed Chinese system in vertical direction which was later inherited by bamboo slips, paper books and so forth.


[1], Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien. Written on bamboo and silk: The Beginnings of Chinese Books and Inscriptions.Second Edition. University of Chicago Press.2004. Page 204.